Director : Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay : Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), Dennis Christopher (Leonide Moguy), James Remar (Butch Pooch / Ace Speck), David Steen (Mr. Stonesipher), Dana Gourrier (Cora), Nichole Galicia (Sheba), Laura Cayouette (Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly), Ato Essandoh (D’Artagnan), Sammi Rotibi (Rodney)
In Sergio Corbucci’s Django, the 1966 spaghetti Western from which Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained draws its protagonist’s name, the titular gunslinger (played by the indomitable Franco Nero, who makes an amusing, wink-wink cameo in Tarantino’s film) is first seen trudging through the mud, dragging a giant wooden coffin behind him. For the first 15 minutes of the film we’re captivated with the question What is in that coffin?, and in one of the greatest, most deliciously bizarre surprises in the voluminous western genre, it is revealed to be a machine gun that Django uses to mow down an entire army of gun-slinging thugs—a perfectly pitched subversion of the showdown, the quintessential Western cliché.
There are no moments that singularly great in Django Unchained, although the same sense of outlandish, subversive, anything-goes surprise is exactly what Tarantino is seeking to emulate in a film that is simultaneously an absurdist comedy and a steely depiction of the darkest chapter in American history. The film is at its best when it nails and then moves beyond the exquisitely tasteless essence of exploitation filmmaking, transcending mere approximation of a gritty, gory cinematic past and entering its own unique stratosphere of off-kilter indulgence. At a running length of 2 hours and 45 minutes, Tarantino has plenty of room in which to sprawl and work his unique magic, but the sheer length also increases his chances of missing the target, resulting in a film that is decidedly uneven, although always deliriously enjoyable. Tarantino is channeling both the economical efficiency of the cash-strapped exploitation workmen who shaped his cinematic worldview and the more operatic ambitions of Sergio Leone in his later years, when the idea of transporting the American Western into the rocky hills of Spain morphed into such epic meditations on life and death as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It is only fitting that Tarantino would take Django as one of his prime influences, since it was itself an opportunistic knock-off of Leone’s “Man With No Name” collaborations with Clint Eastwood.
Tarantino’s Django (Jaime Foxx) is not a traditional gunslinger, but rather a slave who is freed by Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyantly verbose dentist-turned-bounty hunter of German origin who needs Django to identify several of his former owners who are wanted dead or alive. As a European, Dr. Shultz looks on slavery with disdain, and in freeing Django he makes the former slave his protégé and eventual partner. Together they make a formidable team, with Django morphing into an icon of steely reserve whose long silences contrast with Dr. Shultz’s relentless verbal eloquence (Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a vicious Nazi in Tarantino’s previous film, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, has a way of speaking that makes each word feel like a special treat).
The second half of the film follows them into the dark heart of Mississippi where they ingratiate themselves with Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic dandy of a plantation owner, by pretending to be slave traders. Their goal is to trick Calvin into selling Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), although it should surprise no one that vengeance of the apocalyptic variety is what Tarantino truly has in mind (the bloodbath that consumes the film’s final half hour is hypnotic in its excessiveness). It is also at Calvin’s plantation (perversely nicknamed “Candyland”) that we meet the film’s most vile character, a cantankerous, self-loathing, black-hating house slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), whose vitriol toward his own race is the film’s ugliest evocation of the horrors of racism and how they emanate from an indoctrinated attitude far from our natural condition. Jackson digs deep into the part, turning clichéd Uncle Tom mannerisms into portents of viciousness that are still tinged with a sense of pity for the victim-turned-victimizer.
The story takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War, when the slave trade was still a fundamental way of life in the Deep South, and Tarantino, never one to shy away from a potentially controversial topic (Inglorious Basterds gleefully rewrote the history of World War II and Nazi genocide), stares down the institution of slavery in a way that is both brave and genuinely unsettling. He isn’t breaking any new ground here, as there was an entire subset of 1970s blaxploitation films set in the American West and South that dealt with slavery, but the scope of Tarantino’s ambitions and the mainstream status of his film, despite its exploitation fixations, makes his evocation of that dark chapter of American history that much more daring and dangerous (it is telling how few Hollywood filmmakers have dared to tackle this topic on screen since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915).
The very subject of Django Unchained is designed to rattle our cage, which puts Tarantino in a tricky place vis-à-vis his loving evocation of the aesthetics and attitudes of trash cinema and his desire to explore—not necessarily exploit—potentially incendiary subject matter. (Should we be surprised that some critics think the film is a retrograde white-boy fantasia while others see it as a truly defining depiction of race in America?) One could argue that Tarantino clearly wants to have his cake and eat it too in making the film’s violence deliriously over the top (when characters are shot they unrealistically spurt enormous volumes of blood) while also taking quite seriously the realities of slavery’s violence and dehumanization. Thus, when the violence is directed against slaves, such as when a runaway is torn apart by dogs or when two men are forced to fight to the death in a bout of “Mandingo Fighting,” Tarantino takes a more restrained approach, suggesting the horrors rather than making them overt (and not in the cheeky style of self-consciously panning the camera away, as he did in the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs). Tarantino recognizes that the idea of such violence is more than enough to jangle our conscience, and in this regard he works contrary to his exploitation forebears, pulling back when others might go in for the blood-and-guts close-up.
The manner in which the film mixes violence that is funny and disturbing, galvanizing and sickening, is also reflected Tarantino’s play with history. There is an absurdist streak in Tarantino’s cinema, and here he indulges it with reckless abandon, never so much as in the goofy spectacle of a bunch of proto-Klansmen debating the difficulties of seeing through the eyeholes in their hoods (the showy cameo appearance of Jonah Hill in the scene would ruin it in any other film, but here it’s just one more reminder that we’re deep in movie-land). Like Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained is a historical film that plays fast and loose with the historical period in which it is set. While it doesn’t rewrite history in the manner that Inglorious Basterds did (it’s not like Django single-handedly frees the slaves, thus rendering Lincoln’s forthcoming Emancipation Proclamation unnecessary), but it does mix plenty of modern touches into the historical verisimilitude, specifically Django’s very modern attitude and hard-eyed swagger, which is descended directly from many a stoic, bad-ass movie hero, rather than any sense of the actual behavior we might imagine from a slave-turned-gunslinger.
Django is a trenchant mix of Eastwood’s Man With No Name and Melvin Van Peebles’ politicized black stud from his groundbreaking proto-blaxpolitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song (1971), and I was amazed that Tarantino didn’t find a way to incorporate that film’s recurrent chorus: “You bled my momma, you bled my poppa, but you won’t bleed me!” While Django’s cool mirrored sunglasses are historically justified, they still feel like they have been imported from a more recent age, and Django with them. Similarly, while his green coat is meant to evoke Michael Landon’s “Little Joe” Cartwright from Bonanza, at certain times it looks decidedly like the paramilitary garb favored by black militants in the ’60s. Yet, rather than undercutting the film, these modern touches heightens the overall effect, making it feel even more brashly cinematic than it already is. The film’s triumph is the manner in which Tarantino re-envisions cinema’s selective appropriation of history (including slavery) and makes it entirely his own, forcibly reminding us that the recounting of history is as much about the attitude of the teller as it is about the content of the tale.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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